Close your eyes. Okay now open them because obvi you need them to read this. Now think about the saddest thing you can think of—puppies dying, children crying, your local bodega running out of Ranch Doritos, what have you. Now multiply that thing times a million. A billion, even. Wrap it in a layer of terminal illness, crimes against humanity and the possible absence of a benevolent God. Only now—having duly considered the sheer tragedy and injustice of the universe—are you even remotely approaching the inherent and heart-wrenching sadness of Wave.
On vacation with her family in Sri Lanka, Sonali Deraniyagala is merely perturbed when on the morning of December 26, 2004, waves can be seeing crashing over the usually calm beachhead outside their hotel. Within minutes she realizes what’s happening—the Indian Ocean earthquake and tsunami we would later learn killed more than 200,000 was about to hit, and she had minutes, maybe seconds, to get out.
Grabbing her children and her husband, Deraniyagala runs outside, failing to stop and warn her parents—staying in the room next door—of the impending catastrophe. It ultimately doesn’t matter. In the ensuing tidal wave, which floods the Jeep in which Deraniyagala and her family are attempting escape, Deraniyagala’s children and husband die. Her parents’ death—a given, as they never escaped the ultimately-leveled hotel—is just icing on the world’s shittiest cake.
For her part, Deraniyagala is tossed around in the Jeep and ultimately comes to—albeit, still in shock. She is rescued moments before being washed out to sea. Deraniyagala spends a hollow-eyed few days trolling the local hospital, waiting for her family to join the scores of survivors camped out there, but also somehow knowing they won’t. Several weeks after the wave, their bodies are identified, and so begins Deraniyagala’s decade-long grieving process, outlined in Wave, a slim but impactful memoir.
Reading the first 50 pages of Wave provokes an almost visceral reaction, a jaw-clenched chest-pain feeling of terror, even though you know how the story ends. In fact, throughout the entire book, I couldn’t help but ache for a Hollywood finish, a sand-covered, exhausted but ultimately intact army of five trudging in off the beach to reclaim their lives with Sonali. The unconscious act of wishing for such a turnaround, even as you know it won’t come, makes Wave all the more difficult to read.
Of course, the horrible irony is that Deraniyagala has written a lovely book. It’s raw and honest — when not wishing death upon herself, she sometimes wishes it on others, those whose survival feels like an added affront to her loss — and doesn’t waste time on sweeping pronouncements about Life or Death or Why. Wave is immensely sad but also angry, bewildered, and weirdly beautiful. Because as Deraniyagala allows herself to reflect on her family, to indulge in memories of them, we as readers come to know them. They’re wealthy and happy and together. They vacation in Sri Lanka; the older son loves nature and the younger one loves puppets. As a family, they prove to be almost annoyingly perfect, and so their fate feels all the more intense, if not particularly unjust.
Deraniyagala’s is one of those stories, the kind you relay to someone else to watch their eyes widen as they try to imagine that level of grief, as they attempt to wrap their mind around soldiering on when in an instant you’ve lost the five people closest to you in the world. I try to imagine experiencing such a profound loss and I can’t; I don’t know how I would survive. (Of course, this kind of shock-and-awe “Oh my god, I don’t know how you’re getting by” sympathy is just another facet of post-tsunami life with which Deraniyagala has to contend.)
But what I love most about Wave is that it isn’t inspirational (I don’t know if Deraniyagala intended it to be). It doesn’t read like a guide for other bereaved wives or parents. It doesn’t feel like an affirmation of our place in the world, or of a “mysterious ways” God that seems to appeal most to people after tragedies He ostensibly could have prevented. Wave is just a moment of darkness, a glimpse into one woman’s survival, a bit of extremely highbrow disaster porn. It’s haunting and beautiful and makes you want to stop reading the news because who knows what hurricane/tsunami/earthquake/asteroid/sinkhole might might do away with everyone you love in the span of 15 minutes. It makes you want to call your mom and hug your sister and cancel all beach vacations. But more than anything, it makes you hope that Deraniyagala found some measure of peace in writing Wave. Some teeny tiny modicum of peace.
AUTHOR: Sonali Deraniyagala
ALSO WROTE: n/a
SORTA LIKE: Falling Man meets J.M. Coatzee
FIRST LINE: “I thought nothing of it at first. The ocean looked a little closer to our hotel than usual.”